Big breakthrough achieved in organ transplants

HOUSTON – Right now, despite all the high-tech advances, the gold standard for transporting a donated organ to a recipient is a simple a cooler. 

While that's the best we had currently have, trials are being conducted on a new machine designed specifically for livers. It works like a human body until the donated liver gets to its recipient.

Randy Smith spends time at church reading and talking to God. He said one time in particular God answered him.

"Two days after the first hospital told me I was terminal and I was praying and reading my Bible, the Holy Spirit came over me and told me I wasn't going to die," Smith said.

Smith was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and went to Houston Methodist Hospital for a second opinion. There he found Dr. Ashish Saharia had something other doctors did not know about.

While Methodist treated his cancer, Smith was put on the liver transplant list. He got a call that a match was found but the health of the organ was questionable.

"The liver that we got for him was a fatty liver, and otherwise we would have been a little hesitant using it but because we were able to put it in the machine and test that it was actually a good liver, we were able to put it in," Saharia said.  "It's almost like testing it on a machine before you put it in a human being so, so what's really fascinating about this is you can actually test whether or not it's going to work. Especially the livers that you don't know or you (are) worried that they won't work and if you can test whether the liver can work in a person, this is an ideal situation for them."

Saharia used the TransMedics OCS liver technology, which mimics the human body and tests whether or not the liver is going to work.

"They take your liver and instead of putting it in ice and a big ice chest, they put it in a machine that keeps it 98.6 degrees, runs blood throughout the whole time," Smith said while explaining what he knew about the device. "They have monitors checking your enzyme levels and the different things in your liver, analyze the liver for fat content and keep it like it's inside a human body."

As one of the first hospitals in the United States to try this machine on human organs, Smith had to agree to be a guinea pig. Since he said he promised to have faith in whatever came his way, he said he agreed to be the first person in Texas to receive a liver transplant that went from the donor and through the machine before it was given to him.

Now, two years later, Smith is cancer-free with a healthy liver.

"Everything looks perfect, no signs of any potential cancer or anything," he said.

Saharia said the next step is to prove to government health officials that the machine is better than the current standard (a cooler) and after this clinical trial, prove the machine could "clean up" questionable organs and give doctors certainty they will work before they ever go into the patient.